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Cooper has turned Lightning around

TAMPA

The first question is not about his overachieving swarm of gnats, those guys who believed when everyone doubted.

The first question is not even about the terrific goaltending, or about the missing star, or about how the team has claimed overtime as its own.

With Jon Cooper, magic man, the first question is simple:

What are you doing here?

He was going to be the next Perry Mason, not the next Scotty Bowman. He was going to put on his suit, grab his briefcase and go to court. After all, some guys argue before the bench, and some guys stand behind it. Some guys try to be the next Torts, and some guys just file them.

This always has been one of the more delightful slices of the story of Cooper. He was a lawyer back in Lansing, Mich., a defender who argued "six or seven" cases. That's about as far away from the normal selection pool of NHL coaches as anyone could imagine. He wasn't always the guy in charge of Team Houdini.

A decade later, Cooper has found a home. These days, he is the head coach of the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that will not slow down and will not go away. Glance up and down the roster — Marty and the Prove-Its — and you will not be awed by most of the resumes. And yet it wins.

Thirty-five games into the season, and the Lightning is tied for second in its division and tied for third in its conference. It is 8-3 in overtime, including 5-1 in shootouts. It is 9-3-3 in one-goal games. Without Steven Stamkos, it is 9-6-3. Overall, it already has won more games this year (21) than last year (18).

And the question persists.

What are they doing here?

You remember last year, don't you? The Lightning was the third-worst team in hockey, and most onlookers seemed to believe it was headed toward a similar kind of season this year. The consensus was that, yeah, Steve Yzerman has a plan, but it was going to take a while.

"I like the way our team plays," said Yzerman, the team's general manager. "I like the system he's put in place. I think our players are playing hard. We've battled through some injuries and managed to stay afloat. It's been a difficult job for a coach, and he's handled it well.

"I think one of his strengths, as it was in (AHL) Syracuse and Norfolk, was to relate to the players. I know the kids who played for him in the minors loved playing for him. He finds a way to get to them and push them and challenge them and make them better players."

As a result, the Lightning has transformed into a wonderfully stubborn bunch with a knack for stealing games at the end of the night. The closer the game is to the finish, the better these guys have been.

Yes, this says great things about the players themselves. But the mind-set involved also says wonderful things about Cooper. He has these guys believing that when the game is up in the air, they will come down with it. These days, close belongs to the Lightning.

"It's something that is a mind-set you build in your players," Cooper, 46, said. "You can't sit and say, 'Oh, my gosh. We're down a goal or two. It's over.' The mind-set is, 'Okay, the goal is scored. Let's make sure we get the next one.' You have to turn the page. When the game is on the line, you have to have poise under pressure. You have to slow your heartbeat down. You have to calm yourself and concentrate on what's at hand.

"If you want to be in the conversation to make the playoffs, you have to win one-goal games. You have to find a way. You get to the third period, and you're down a goal, or up a goal, or it's tied. You've shortened the game. Do you have the will to win this hockey game? Those are the points that separate playoff teams from nonplayoff teams."

If you want to know the truth, this success started over the last 13 games of last season, when Cooper took over from Guy Boucher. Cooper only won five of those games, but he says that experience was invaluable for him.

Even then, Cooper says he was filled with "false hope" that things would turn around immediately. Cooper is like that. The guy expects success.

"He's extremely passionate about winning," said defenseman Mark Barberio, who played for Cooper in Syracuse and Norfolk. "I haven't seen that kind of passion from many coaches. It just rubs off on the guys. He walks that fine line between being a players' coach and still getting respect."

For a hockey coach, the mental part of handling the clubhouse is so important. Sure, systems count, and Cooper deserves a lot of credit for convincing his stars to play on both ends of the ice. Boucher seemed to enjoy living outside of the box, and eventually, that seemed to be a detriment to his team. Cooper's system seems to be a better fit.

Along the way, Cooper convinced a locker room filled with youngsters that they belong, that success is there for the taking.

"We have a lot of great people in the room," he said. "We don't have guys whose first names start with 'me.' That's big. We have a lot of guys who play with passion, a lot of guys who really want to win."

For an ex-lawyer, these are the trials that matter these days. Somehow, you have to give your team a way to win the closing arguments.

The jobs aren't that different, really.

Either way, you have to help your team win its appeal.

Cooper has turned Lightning around 12/19/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 19, 2013 11:08pm]
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